Together apart: Marriage Story works through tears and humor

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver fight, laugh, and search for authenticity while going though separation and divorce in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. NETFLIX Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver fight, laugh, and search for authenticity while going though separation and divorce in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. NETFLIX

Though Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story openly invites comments on the irony of the title—this is, after all, a movie about divorce—it’s in their separation that Nicole and Charlie Barber (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) see one another for who they are, as opposed to who they’d become while married. The life they built together was full of creativity, financial success, and critical acclaim. They have a wonderful son. Is it tragic that a marriage like this ended in divorce? Or is the tragedy that building this life led to buried resentment, unspoken frustrations, and uneven power dynamics, and that the most logical thing to do—go their separate ways—comes at such a steep emotional, financial, and legal cost? Or is the struggle to divorce entirely justified, and we should accept the pain inflicted as a natural part of the human experience?

Funny and frustrating (in a great way), Marriage Story paves the way for a mature discussion on the subject of divorce. Nicole and Charlie live in New York as part of a successful theater company: He writes and directs, she acts, and together they win awards and adoration. Nicole, however, feels she has always lived in his shadow, as a supporting player in what is ultimately his story. She left a burgeoning movie career and her roots in Los Angeles for the New York stage, and wants to reclaim her success. Charlie, meanwhile, feels blindsided by her complaints, and wants to continue with his career and maintain their home in New York.

Everything is cordial, if tense, at first. It’s when the facts of living a bicoastal life with a child emerge that the rocky road to divorce reveals itself, even if the idea is amicable. As the bureaucratic and spiritual difficulties arise, they have to confront one another, and have the conversations they’ve been avoiding. How do you tell someone how hurt and rejected you feel by them without insulting them? How do you lay claim to part of their life that you feel you’ve earned without ruining them? And should those concerns stop you in the first place?

Baumbach’s film challenges us to reexamine how we think about relationships and how they end, dispensing with the notion that someone has to be right or wrong for a marriage to come apart. There are many rights and countless wrongs, all of which deserve the light of day. As Nicole and Charlie’s lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, who steal every scene) bicker on their clients’ behalf, they hear their feelings put into words in a way they would never have said, but left to their own devices their truth would have gone unspoken.

This review has focused on the emotional maturity of Marriage Story, but the movie’s not just one big dissertation on divorce law. It boasts an exceptional lead and supporting cast, excellent dialogue, and a rich sense of humor. Like the film’s characters, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry, and will frequently do both.

Marriage Story / R, 136 minutes / Violet Crown Cinema

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213. regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.

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